Independent, but not alone
Michele McDannold, Roadside Press, Gutter Snob Books, and her latest book of poetry By Plane, Train, or Coincidence.
I have come to realize that no one is going to save us. We have to save ourselves. I was never charmed by religion or politics, but Hollywood has chewed me up and spit me out twice. Also, I’ve spent years sending my writing to what’s left of the big publishing houses in New York. They are merging or crumbling, and refusing to take chances just like the record industry did after illegal downloading. Now big publishers are only interested in celebrity memoirs, political tell-all books, cookbooks, and the occasional kids book.
Despite the thousands of channels the truth still isn’t on TV. It’s not even in the news because they too compete as a form of entertainment. The truth isn’t in pop music. For me it’s at the blues jams in Chicago and Memphis, or in the garage band playing in backyards and dive bars. The truth can be heard at your local open mic from that poet, rapper, or singer songwriter. If your community doesn’t have an open mic then start one yourself. Your neighbors are wise.
I have come to realize that there are no proper channels, because what is left of the proper channels don’t want us. They don’t want the truth only sex appeal and distraction. As artists we have to do it ourselves. I know the value of DIY punk art. I know that punk rock is folk art. That folk music is totally punk rock despite the stylistic difference. I know that real art comes from the people not from the streaming services. Young people know this instinctively every generation start doing their own thing. The counter-culture has always been there. It’s a thin almost invisible line that has kept American culture from becoming a plastic dystopia. Someone has to tell the stories of the poor. Someone has to help us relate about how fucked up life can be. Someone has to say the wrong thing the ugly thing to remind us that the right to do so protects us all despite that it may be triggering or more offensive than sticks and stones.
How can an artist be both sensitive and tough? Poet Michele McDannold is a great example. In her latest collection By Plane, Train, or Coincidence the poems come out of thoughtful still moments but suddenly scream with angst of the recent years, of restless travel, and of heartbreak. These poems will sneak up on you and sucker punch you. She knows that life, real life, is not on the screen but out there on the road, in the mountains, or at the shore. Life is to be lived. Roll the dice. Don’t just go through the motions. That it’s very possible to leave your hometown but never forget where you’re from. She knows when the muse is visiting and how to catch those moments like lightning in a jar.
Michele also knows the frustration of any poet who puts their work out in public has to suffer clichéd career advice. Why aren’t you on Tic Tock? As if we have to explain that what we have to say isn’t for the short attention span. In her new book she has a poem called Friendly Advice that reads, “Find another way to make money. Invent new ways to stalk your lover. Start a diet fad. Marry a rich man. Kill’em with your good looks and big tits. Don’t take a penny. Dig graves for a living. With your fierce competitive attitude sell, sell, sell. Aim high. Shoot low. Find an airfield saturated in hair spray. Tell the whole world about the mood you’re in. In other words lie, lie, lie.” Such free advice costs people their souls. Some of us don’t want to lie. Get those filters off my face. Perfection is boring. We want to be our real selves not the idealized digital footprint. I can’t believe we have to keep saying this but we do. It’s important that we do.
In an earlier volume Stealing the Midnight from a Handful of Days there is a poem called “Nothing to Lose (or Freedom)” where she writes: “I will keep on gathering great poems, sharing the news about great poets, new ones, old ones, killer ones, fucky ones, we’ll call it the ‘didn’t make it to twitter because it had too much character’ book. I want to drive down the great river road. I want a reading right now in bars, bookstores, and bowling alleys. I want to read/scream at bikers and rednecks, housewives and whores. I hope they throw stuff and spit on me, chase me out to the car yelling ‘We don’t like your kind round here,’ but they will secretly worship me and my freedom and my hoard of poets from the suburbs, the city, the farm. They’re multiplying like gremlins… I want them all (not to make them famous) to make them infamous. To spread their disease of think, of cut out the bullshit, and get to the point. I want America in her glazed over Red Bull eyes to really wake the fuck up.”
As I’ve traveled across this country I’ve learned that it takes time but eventually you will find your people. Those you can conspire with. I am lucky to have found Michele and a legion of underground writers who like rats are patiently chewing at the support beams of the brainwash machine. I am proud to be one of her “multiplying gremlins,” one of her not famous but infamous poets. Michele has created a platform where we can express ourselves without compromise. Take a look. And if you don’t like it, write your own book and show us how it’s done. Because like I said we can only save ourselves.
—Westley Heine, author of Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician & Squatter